It’s opening night at the National Theatre. The radical writer and director Amma Bonsu, snubbed for decades by the cultural establishment for her uncompromising work (FGM: The Musical; Cunning Stunts), is about to astonish audiences with a new play. The Last Amazon of Dahomey has sold out before the run begins; it features 18th-century lesbian West African warriors, ‘thunderous armies of charging Amazons brandishing muskets and machetes/hollering and swelling towards the audience’. The before and after of the first performance bookend Bernardine Evaristo’s latest novel, bringing her characters’ storylines together in one place. Everyone is at the National to see the play and to be seen at the afterparty. There is Amma’s teenage daughter, Yazz, in her second year at UEA, determined to break into journalism and force her elders to check their privilege; her gay father, Roland, Amma’s sperm donor and the University of London’s first professor of modern life; Dominique, Amma’s sex-goddess best friend, a surprise arrival from Los Angeles; Amma’s unglamorous friend Shirley, a.k.a. Mrs King, a.k.a. Fuck Face, endlessly teaching history to the undeserving and ungrateful (‘the next generation of prostitutes, drug dealers and crackheads’) at Peckham School; one of Shirley’s very few star pupils, Carole, now vice president of a City bank by way of Oxford; and Morgan, a non-binary Twitter influencer and huge fan of Amma’s plays who’s been paid to tweet-review the evening in ‘attention-seeking soundbites’.
Amma isn’t Clarissa Dalloway, though, and this isn’t a novel about her party. The opening night device wraps things up neatly but it doesn’t force any dramatic plot revelations or make connections between characters that we hadn’t already spotted. Girl, Woman, Other is vast in its historical and geographical scope (ranging from 1895 to the present day; hopping from King’s Cross to West Hollywood to Barbados to Nigeria to Cornwall to Berwick-upon-Tweed) and criss-crossed by the lives of 12 very different black British women and their lovers, families and friends. In place of the formal unity and single protagonists of previous Evaristo novels – Mr Loverman (2013), for instance, with its charismatic lead and Lear-like drama of an old man and his difficult daughters – this is a whole world, full of variety and contradiction, details that lead nowhere, private tragedies and public unfairnesses that no one is able to redress.
But a story that features the rediscovery of a long-lost daughter (a cot abandoned on a church doorstep; a pilgrimage to the wilds of Northumberland) must have some investment in connections, and the closer you look the more organised the novel starts to appear. Motifs repeat themselves. In the early 2000s, LaTisha – Carole’s friend and one of Mrs King’s nightmare pupils – discovers she’s pregnant and her mother throws her out for ‘bringing shame’ on the family: ‘I’ve got a babymother for a daughter.’ In 1939, Morgan’s great-grandmother Hattie is forced by her father to abandon the baby she conceives at 14: ‘You don’t speak a word about this, to anyone, ever, you must forget this ever happened … your life will be forever ruined with a bastard child.’ Places reappear. Amma and her friend Sylvester are entirely at home in the bar of the Ritzy cinema in Brixton in 2019, ‘surrounded by posters of the independent films they’d been going to see together since they first met’. Carole’s mother, Bummi, invited to a ‘Ghanaian fusion music night’ at the Ritzy a few years previously, doesn’t mind the lemonade and the snacks but dislikes the music and ‘the other people’: ‘scruffy bohemian types who had not bothered to dress up’.
Characters crop up in other characters’ stories and everyone has an opinion on everyone else. To Dominique, trying to set up an arts festival solely for ‘women-born-women as opposed to women-born-men’, Morgan is just ‘someone with a million followers on Twitter’ bent on making her life hell, the ringleader of a group of online ‘trans troublemakers’ who want to silence her. To Morgan, invited to give a lecture about gender freedom at Yazz’s university, Yazz – a Gen Z trailblazer, leader of the wokest gang on campus – is just a teenager in need of schooling, a kid who thinks that deciding to become non-binary is like deciding on ‘a trendy new haircut’. And while to Amma the staging of The Last Amazon of Dahomey is a career high and a personal and political triumph, to Carole’s fiancé, Freddy – only half in jest – it’s two hours of ‘hot lesbian action on stage’, after which maybe Carole will finally ‘be turned on enough to entertain the idea of the mythical threesome’.
These multiple narratives, supplying the reader with perspectives and insights the individual characters don’t share, create space for comedy. Shirley is too wrapped up in the psychodrama of her career to notice the way her professional martyrdom (a thirty-year struggle with feral pupils, smug younger colleagues, league tables and the national curriculum) is perceived by her mother, Winsome, when she returns to Barbados for the summer:
Shirley is winding down with a glass of wine while gazing dreamily at the sea like it’s the most beautiful thing she’s ever seen
she behaves like a tourist when she’s here, expects everything to be perfect and wears all white: blouse, trousers, comfy sandals
I only wear white on holiday, Mum, it’s symbolic of the psychological cleansing I have to undergo
Shirley has her secrets, too; we know that her Sunday routine with her husband, Lennox, involves coffee, sex and reading the newspapers, in that order, so there’s a wink to the reader in Winsome’s second-hand account of proceedings: ‘lying in bed late on Sunday mornings drinking real coffee from a percolator while reading the newspapers, as Shirley reported back’. But while these little withholdings and reticences aren’t significant, other ironies of perspective leave characters in the dark about things that really do matter. The revelation – to the reader – of Winsome’s affair with Lennox (‘she was nearly fifty/she deserved to have this/him’) reflects grimly on Shirley’s marital contentment, her belief that her husband will never cheat on her, her desire to escape Amma’s thespy party at the end of the novel and ‘snuggle up on the sofa with Lennox … and catch up on the Bake Off finale’. Worse, there is LaTisha’s misreading of Trey, soon to be the father of child number three, on the basis of his social media profile (‘no girls at all, a sign he wasn’t a player and was waiting for the right girl to come along before he committed’) – the same Trey we last saw abandoning Carole, aged 13, naked in a local park after a party: ‘You were gagging for it, and by the way, you were great.’ Here, the inequities of information that make irony possible are used to show up the larger inequities – of knowledge, of power – that often structure sexual encounters.
Evaristo uses line breaks to convey experiences that would be difficult to talk about in full sentences. Carole’s voice shatters as she remembers being on the grass with Trey (‘then/her/body/wasn’t/her/own/no/more’); Penelope, Shirley’s colleague at Peckham School, remembers the shock of discovering her parents weren’t who she thought they were, ‘the feeling of being/un/moored/un/wanted/un/loved/un/done’. The technique is part of what Evaristo calls ‘fusion fiction’, a hybrid ‘disruptive’ style that pushes prose towards free verse, allowing direct and indirect speech to bleed into each other and sentences to run on without full stops. It’s looser than the verse-like forms she has experimented with in previous novels, such as the unrhymed accentual couplets of The Emperor’s Babe (2001), where clever cross-line effects (‘you look across, am/stuffed/dates, torn between my teeth’) show a difficult structure being employed for its own sake. (There’s also more of a pull towards canonical allusion, parodic or otherwise, in that novel, perhaps permitted or encouraged by the form. ‘If I should die, think only this of me, Zuleika,/there’s a corner somewhere deep/in Caledonia that is for ever Libya,’ Emperor Severus says, channelling Rupert Brooke almost two millennia before Gallipoli.)
As well as disrupting conventional paragraphing and punctuation, Evaristo’s fusion fiction is used to upset conventional modes of thought. Mr Loverman is about the ways people lie to themselves as well as to others, and there are comic explorations of denial – Carmel, the long-suffering wife, convinces herself that her excitement about buying a new carpet is more to do with being able to kneel to pray than keeping up with the Joneses: ‘you goin’ get a shag pile soon, in the Continued Service of Our Lord/got your eye on a luxurious creamy one in Debenhams.’ In Girl, Woman, Other, the sentences are flexible enough to accommodate multiple fabricated realities, including LaTisha’s excuses for getting out of lessons: ‘I’ve got my period/I feel sick/my grandmother’s just died, Mrs King.’ Well-worn phrases prop up the stories people tell themselves. Carole’s father, Augustine, is convinced that his move to England from Nigeria will be a success: ‘He would eventually own properties in New York, L.A., Geneva, Cape Town, Ibadan, Lagos and of course, London/he would do it, yes, he would do it/by the grace of God.’ His dreams disintegrate in the space between the end of one chapter and the beginning of the next, as Evaristo’s repetition of the same phrase across the chapter break shows the limits of its power:
he would do it, yes, he would do it
by the grace of God
By the grace of God
Bummi and Augustine migrated to Britain where he again could not find work befitting his qualifications
Parentheses, rather than being used to make an idea more complicated or to squirrel something away, have a truth-telling function here: they get at what people really mean. Shirley fills in the gaps in a description of Carole’s schoolfriend Lauren: ‘the third member of the gang was Lauren McDonaldson who had an STD, according to a very good (confidential) authority (the school nurse), on account of her promiscuity with the (older) boys in the school, including one of the (younger) caretakers, if rumours (toilet walls) were to be believed.’
‘Plays about black women,’ Roland declares at Amma’s party, ‘will never have popular appeal, simply because the majority of the majority sees the majority of Les Négresses as separate to themselves, an embodiment of Otherness.’ ‘Otherness’ here, as conceived by this self-important TV don, is a term belonging to sociology or his daughter’s English lectures. In the novel it is a matter of lived experience. White characters constantly ‘other’ black characters: a fellow student shouts at Carole that she’s ‘so ghetto’ in her first term at Oxford; Bummi gets a job as a cleaner and is told ‘never to open any drawers, cupboards or wardrobes/or go into pockets or bags’. Black characters are aware of these patterns and resist them. At her book group in Barbados, Winsome and her friends agree that canonical white writers don’t speak to them and they’d rather read books by women from their own culture. ‘Why should Wordsworth, Whitman, T.S. Eliot or Ted Hughes mean anything special to we people of the Caribbean?’
Evaristo also dramatises forms of differential treatment within communities, examining the ways her black characters see one another. Watching Amma’s play, Carole is conscious that she ought to feel ‘validated’ by the sight of a ‘stage full of black women’ but instead she feels ‘slightly embarrassed’. It would be better if the play were about ‘the first black woman prime minister of Britain, or a Nobel prizewinner for science’, she thinks, ‘someone who represented legitimate success at the highest levels’, instead of ‘lesbian warriors strutting around’. Shirley, despite her friendship with Amma, doesn’t want to think about her friend’s homosexuality (‘initially quite disgusting’); Bummi comes close to disowning Carole when she hears her daughter isn’t going to marry a Nigerian; Hattie has no time for her great-granddaughter Megan’s transition to Morgan (‘Hattie asked her outright if she’d been to see a doctor because you sound mental, dear?’); Dominique is frustrated by trans women ‘infiltrating’ spaces that according to her feminism aren’t designed for them. None of these characters supports all black womanhood, or black personhood; there are always some identities they will not stand for, or – because they are figures in a novel – stand in for.
According to Roland, this doesn’t matter, and shouldn’t. Black Britons have a right to speak for themselves and only themselves, as white Britons do, rather than being obliged to give voice to others (nominally) like them: ‘His bredren and sistren could damned well speak up for themselves/why should he carry the burden of representation when it will only hold him back?’ Evaristo’s novel asks whether he’s right. On one view, a line from Winsome’s favourite Guyanese poet, Grace Nichols, could stand as its epigram: ‘we the women/whose praises go unsung/whose voices go unheard.’ On another view, it looks too near: is there a coherent ‘we’ among the characters? Girl, Woman, Other celebrates the spectrum of black British identity, but it’s full of characters who don’t or can’t, or who see the world as more complicated than that. It’s a novel shaped by intersectionality – 12 narratives, each bringing together multiple strands of identity, each informed by multiple social contingencies – but this form is what keeps it in pieces, a complex collection of fragments that aren’t meant to speak as one. What connects them is Evaristo’s insistence on names. Names are used as chapter titles; as the first words of chapters; they are listed and categorised (as when Hattie runs through ‘her ever growing gene pool’ at the family Christmas lunch). There are, intentionally, too many names, and they make up a fictional world in which – like the real one – you can’t assume everyone is like you, or wants the things you want.